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Sticky: Intro to Food Communication 2

2014 June 17
by Paul Mabrey
High Way Exit Food Sigh with eating establishments listed

Yesterday’s introduction to food communication treated communication and food separately, then gestured toward how we might understand them together. Our working definition of food communication might argue that those interested in food communication are individuals for whom food is an integral and necessary part of our everyday life and wish to understand how food shapes and reshapes our production or destruction of meaning, relationships and community.

An important aspect of food communication is its everydayness, its ubiquity in the the ordinary day. As the discussion suggests, our taking for granted food and our relationships to food may have contributed to the ignorance of food as an object of study or informing communication research. Interestingly, while food may have been a blindspot for communication studies, today’s readings demonstrate that communication theories are used to help understand and research our food relationships, whether knowingly or now.

Barthes and Jacobson both supply us a language and theoretical tools to understand and analyze how food is communicated, food communicates and how we communicated about food. They use concepts that many of us are already familiar with, whether from our communication courses, english courses or perhaps some other point along our education path. Or we just happen to have picked up on these ideas in passing.

Food as Sign

Barthes’ piece provides a challenging yet provocative and rich place to understand the relationships between food and communication. Barthes can be difficult because is is relying on different experiences and examples than what most us are accustomed to, for example the French historical and cultural examples. Barthes employs semiotics to help contexualize the role and function of food,

For what is food?…a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior…this item of food sums up and transmits a situation; it constitutes an information; it signifies…it is a real sign, perhaps the functional unit of communication.

Food functions as a sign, a sign communicating something in addition to itself, perhaps even something other than itself. With food, we are not just buying or consuming a product but a whole system or chain of meanings. An apple is not just the red sweet, tart object that you ingest for nutrition. The apple is the whole system that contributed to growing the apple; sun, water, animals maybe human farmers. Also in the apple is potentially pesticide, transportation issues, Snow White, Macintosh and much more. You are not eating an apple, you are experiencing a system or grammar of food. Advertising is a tool, identified by Barthes, with which we can trace and analyze the signification of food.

The Rhetoric of Food

Extending more explicitly the discipline of communication studies, Jacobsen’s piece on The Rhetoric of Food advances a basic, fundamental but no less important claim. How we define food matters, simple. Just like in anything, the definition one uses sets forth a whole range of meaning, histories, actions and questions that a different definition might foreclose. More than a defining role, how we frame or deploy food in language also matters. And it is these definitions or ways of thinking (or really, not thinking) about food that should be unsettled so that we can be mindful of our relationships to food.

Metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche are all tropes that shape how we hear, understand and (re)act to our food relationships. Jacobsen provides a couple that are fruitful for demonstrating the point, “fuel for the body” and “grazing” come to mind. Even the use of “fruitful” to describe an example or analysis calls forth a chain of meanings and emotions that affect us.

Tropes are also used to describe three dominant frames of food; food as nature, food as commodity and food as culture. Jacobsen does a fairly good job detailing the different actors, senses of time, spaces, concepts etc that are highlighted when each trope is used. Though even the tropes established seem to have their own ideological underpinnings working for them.

Jacobsen's Trope Chart of Food as Culture, Nature and CommodityFood for Thought

Given Jacobsen’s argument about the importance of how we define food, what are the implications for Barthes definition of food? What ways of thinking, systems of meaning etc are encouraged by understanding food as sign and what ways of thinking etc are foreclosed and ignored?

What are the similarities and/or differences between reading food as a sign versus food as a trope? Is one more helpful for your analysis than the other?

What food tropes did you find yourself thinking about while reading and discussing these pieces?

Jacobsen tends to think of food as commodity in a mostly negative fashion? Can the food as commodity trope be a productive trope?

What are the implications to how Jacobsen identifies the characteristics of each trope? Was there sufficient evidence to demonstrate? Do you agree?


One Response leave one →
  1. Lindsay Kagalis permalink
    June 18, 2014

    In response to the question about the negative light that Jacobsen sheds on food as commodity, I think that it could be spun into a more positive and productive trope by placing at least a little if not more focus on foods that are farm to table at restaurants or farmers markets. Also looking at foods that are considered organic and local that are sold at grocery stores, such as a few products that I have seen in Food Lion and Kroger. Not all of these products seen are solely focused on short term profits or mass-production. Instead they are focused on creating a better relationship, if even just establishing a relationship at all, between the buyer and the farmer/seller. This seems, at least to me, much more productive than the mass-produced, processed food that is only being talked about by Jacobsen. It also leaves out the shift towards more locally grown produce, which at least in my opinion, tends to being moving slightly away from the transnational trading of food as a commodity. Of course, we still have many different types of fruits and other more “international” food products sold in our markets, but there are more products now that are locally grown in the United States, processed and ships without having to go long distances, which is much more productive for food as a commodity. I think that it can be seen as a productive commodity and especially disagree with his point that everything else besides price will be irrelevant for consumers of food as a commodity. At least for myself, I try to purchase the freshest and most local food possible, regardless of the price, because as I see it, the price will not matter as it is necessary to eat and eating the best possible food may come with a higher price. I do understand though that the rest of the country may not feel this way too. I could be completely off on this answer, but this was my initial thought and reaction to his viewpoint.

    I guess for the question of which tropes I found myself thinking about would most definitely be more of culture or nature. As I mentioned before, I think it is important to think of food as a commodity in relation to the farmers that sell locally, which more in mind of the quality of food and who you bought it from than mass producing it. Going along with the first question I answered, maybe food as a commodity would be more productive if it were taken in relation to culture more than just strictly set aside on its own? Even though he says that the two are incompatible. I do think the two can work together somehow. I’m really not sure if I’m right or not on this, just my two cents.

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